Researcher works to thwart antibiotic resistance

With increasing reports of superbugs that are resistant to virtually all antibiotics, experts warn of a return to the pre-antibiotic era. In that future, routine surgeries and minor conditions, such as a scraped knee or urinary tract infection, could more frequently result in serious infection or death. Those with impaired immune systems — including cancer and organ transplant patients — face the greatest risk.

Microbiologist Gautam Dantas is sequencing vast quantities of bacterial DNA in efforts to understand and thwart antibiotic resistance.

Proposals to address the problem call for judicious use of antibiotics, both by doctors and in U.S. agricultural practices. While overuse of antibiotics is a significant contributing factor, experts say restrictive measures only will slow the problem. Bacteria, in a quest for survival, are continually adapting and mounting new, clever defenses against these drugs.

Microbiologist Gautam Dantas, argues that the only sustainable solution is to nurture a robust drug discovery pipeline. Informing his view is his lab’s extensive body of work documenting the genetics of antibiotic resistance in diverse environments, from hospital neonatal intensive care units, to rural farming villages, to urban slums, to an Amazonian tribe cut off from civilization. His overwhelming conclusion: Regardless of habitat, microbes are “chock-full” of DNA that gives them the capacity to survive chemical onslaught.

“Resistance is inevitable,” said Dantas, associate professor of pathology and immunology. “No drug we design is going to permanently prevent resistance. The only way to fight resistance is to find new drugs. And we have to do it continually. Microbes thrive everywhere, including miles below the Earth’s crust or surrounded by radioactive waste.

“Their extreme versatility is a reminder that microbes can do incredible things,” he added. “They have insanely large population sizes and can divide at incredible rates. What enables all this is incredible chemistry. Bacteria are the best chemists we know. We need to respect that ability.”

Antibiotics destroy or weaken bacteria in several different ways, including breaking up the cell wall, restricting replication and inhibiting the production of needed proteins.

>> Read the full article in Outlook Magazine.